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Pop Music Reviews : A Will to Rock, but No Killer Instinct

Mike Scott’s problem, artistically speaking, is he’s just too dang nice.

The Scottish singer-songwriter’s most prominent influences--Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, even U2--have at times flashed notable mean streaks, or at least dark streaks. Scott could have used one himself as he led his band, the Waterboys, at the Universal Amphitheatre on Monday.

He’s a visionary on a spiritual quest, able to describe his journeys poetically in a variety of folk and rock styles. But Monday he lacked the killer instinct to hammer it home.

What he also lacked was a band like Young’s Crazy Horse. In a move worthy of Young, Scott is attempting an about-face from his recent, Irish folk-rooted “Room to Roam” album with a show that emphasizes lean rock--much as Young followed his gentle “Comes a Time” album with the frenzied “Rust Never Sleeps” tour in 1978.

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Having pared down the Waterboys to a versatile, guitar-centered quartet from the sprawling folk aggregation of the last tour, Scott showed a will to rock. But where Young and Crazy Horse slam their songs against a wall and then just keep pushing, the Waterboys went a bit easy on theirs. Crazy Horse could never shift gears like Scott and crew did Monday--but it would have steamrolled right over the folkier and more soulful selections from the Waterboys’ catalogue.

But folk and soul songs can survive rough treatment--and even benefit from it at times. Freewheeling pieces like Scott’s “Highway 61"-ish “Be My Enemy” and “World Party” cannot take any measure of meekness or restraint, but they got enough of both at the Universal to leave only big hints of the power that could have been.

One problem might have been the three-piece horn section. Perhaps without the rigidly arranged horns, Scott might have felt free to cut loose and give his songs the frenzy they deserve.

Or maybe he’s just too polite and reverent--or in love, as several of his songs and comments (and the heart projected on a screen behind him) indicated--to get nasty with his material. He was certainly charming, even engaging. But apparently, nice guys don’t rock.

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